It had arrived gift wrapped on her 29th birthday. A tarnished silver 5×7 frame holding the only remaining copy of a photograph taken years earlier. Enclosed was a simple, unsigned note:
Remember that once upon a time, you were cherished.
She’d thrown the framed photo back into the padded envelope it had arrived in and tossed it in a drawer. Days later, the note went out with the garbage.
They’d met the summer she’d run away from home to “see the world.” At 17, she’d taken a Greyhound bus from a neighboring town with a large backpack she’d found at a rummage sale weeks earlier. Enough clothes to last a week, a journal and a pen, a can of almonds from the pantry, some toiletries, and all the money she could find.
Her father didn’t try too hard to find her. He probably hadn’t noticed she was gone until it he hit the bottom of the whisky bottle and was too drunk to go to the store to fetch more.
By the time she’d reached the big city, she’d run out of money and almonds. He’d found her during his morning run; she was brushing her teeth in a drinking fountain in a public park.
“It must have been a lovely night for a camp-out,” he’d said, still jogging in place.
She spit onto the ground, and pushed the lock of dark hair out of her narrowed eyes. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“How are the stars at night?” he asked, still jogging.
“Brighter than I’ve ever seen,” she couldn’t help but smile as she recalled the vision of tiny lights glittering the darkened sky above the trees.
“Aah, well….they’d have to, to compete with that smile.”
She leaned down to drink water from the fountain to conceal the blush in her cheeks.
He’d come back around at the end of his run and invited her out for a meal. The meal led to an invitation to use the shower at his flat. Which led to the shared warmth of his double bed. Which led to their shared summer, culminating in the day at the park with the rose.
That was the day he frightened her.
He’d just purchased a high-end used camera at a resale shop he’d passed on his morning run. “It’s a Canon T-90!” he’d said, excitedly while she was heating up some leftover pizza in the oven.
“I don’t know what that means,” she responded, unimpressed.
“It’s state-of-the art. Best technology there is right now,” he held the viewfinder to his eye and focused in on her.
She shrugged in response, and turned to look through the oven glass. “What are you going to take pictures of?” She asked, focusing her thoughts on the bubbling cheese as it browned.
“Beautiful things,” he responded as the flash went off
Later that day, they’d gone to the park. She’d wanted to go to a bar, but he’d insisted on taking the camera out for a spin. She hated posing. He kept trying to position her this way and that, in front of trees, sitting on benches, leaning back over the grass. She felt stiff and exposed.
He sat beside her on the bench, for the first time that day setting the camera down, and kissed her. The kiss felt nice. Sweet. “Can’t we go get a drink now?” she asked him.
“I just want one more shot,” he said.
She sighed. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
He picked a rose off a nearby tree. It was a deep, bright pink color that faded the closer it got to the base. “Hold this up to your face,” he said.
She pressed the bud to her nose and inhaled. The smell was sweet and soft and reminded her of her mother’s garden growing up a million years ago. She used to love the days when her mother would hand her the shears and say, “Let’s make tonight’s table special. Go out to the garden and pick the six prettiest blooms for mum.”
She flashed on the memory of the night that those roses wound up on floor covered with shards of glass, beneath the bare wall streaked with water. Her father had sent her to her room. Hours later, her mother had come in quietly, setting the six roses on her bedside table. “I love you, my darling,” she whispered. She was gone six months later.
“I want you to look at me,” he said.
She raised her eyes up. He looked through the viewfinder and focused. “You are so beautiful,” he said. She smiled. Sometimes he really made her feel that way.
He pulled the camera down and looked into her eyes. “No, really. You are so beautiful.” He paused for a moment, taking in the contrast of her pale skin with the jet black short hair, and the bright rose against her cheek.
“I love you, my darling.”
She’d packed her backpack the night before while he slept and left during his morning run. She left a note on a page torn from her unused journal. “I’m sorry. Thank you. Goodbye.”
She kissed the page, leaving behind the imprint of her red lips and left the key to the flat beside the note on the counter.
It was a great time to be a young adult without responsibility. The club scene made it easy for her to find a string of warm beds to sleep on, and most of the men and women who took her home would offer her at least a meal or some money before sending her on her way.
She was 21, three years past the rose in the park, when she met the people who would become her “family” for the next two years. They offered her stability, room and board, in exchange for her services. They called it “training.”
They hit her.
But it wasn’t like with mum, she thought. It wasn’t out of anger. Afterwards, there was always some form of tenderness. A hug, soft words, hot cocoa. She learned to enjoy the pain and anticipate the affection.. She learned to crave it. She looked forward the nights when her training would continue. She wore a collar and she called them “Master” and “Mistress” and she called his friends “Sir.”
There were many, many “Sirs” during that time.
Then one evening, the man who looked too much like her father appeared at her bedroom door. They’d been properly introduced earlier. She’d serviced him under the table during dinner at her Master’s behest, but without having to look at his face, he was just another cock to please. She’d been far more reserved the rest of the evening as she fetched drinks and washed dishes. He’d been leering at her from the sofa while she knelt at her Master’s feet during the game.
But that night he came into her room, as so many others had. Master and Mistress had always told their guests to help themselves to anything in the house. “What is ours is yours,” they’d say. Everybody knew she was theirs.
He turned the lights on. Maybe if he hadn’t done that she could have gotten through it. His voice was different, but his face…
His face was much too similar.
“On your back, little girl,” he growled. She could smell the whiskey on him from three feet away and her stomach turned.
“Yes, Sir,” she responded obediently.
“No. I want you to call me daddy,” he said.
They dropped her off at the bus station the following morning. She had her backpack and enough money to get back to the city.
She worked the streets for a while. It kept her relatively clothed and fed. She got a job as an exotic dancer next at a dive bar in the shady part of town. “You’re a little old,” the manager had said, “but if you put out, they won’t notice.”
She was 26.
He’d found her on Myspace in 2006. She was 28 years old and earning a living as a web cam girl. She’d started a live-journal blog where she chronicled her exploits – some real, and some imaginary, and used the social networking site to promote her website.
She lived with the webmaster and spent most nights in his bed as compensation for his services. On nights he had other women, she slept on the couch.
“How have you been?” read the first message.
They agreed to meet. She didn’t have a car and had spent the last of her spare change on a pack of cigarettes, so he offered to pick her up at the flat.
They had coffee. He looked good. Her hair had grown out and she’d bleached it blonde. There were dark circles under her eyes and her cheeks were gaunt.
She told him stories. As she listened to herself talk she knew she was exaggerating, bragging. She was making it sound as if her life had been lived on her terms.
His eyes looked sad.
“If you ever need anything….”
Eight months later, the package had arrived.
She shoved it in a drawer and went out to look for a date. Her webmaster’s parents were coming for an extended stay and he’d told her to go find somewhere else to stay the weekend.
She was no longer earning an income from the website by the time she hit 35, and the webmaster kicked her out. She packed up the seventeen year old backpack, patched and worn as it was, with clothes, toiletries, a box of granola bars, and all the money she had left.
Before she left the flat she looked around to see if there was anything else she needed. She saw the drawer by the entryway.
She took the padded envelope out of the drawer and tucked it into the front pocket.
She’s in her late 60s now. Eventually her life stabilized. She’d gotten a stable job in used bookstore with a small studio on the upper floor. She supplemented her income by proofreading articles for a local paper and occasionally selling short erotica that she self-published on the internet.
She was comfortable now. For the last ten years she’d been seeing a nice younger man. They never lived together, but he’d been kind to her. He enjoyed her and made her feel beautiful in her old age. He would remind her at every opportunity that he appreciated all the things she would do that his wife would never consider.
The framed photo sits on her bedside table beside a simple glass vase in which she always displays six roses purchased each week from the flower market. She doesn’t have a photo of him. The last time she looked him up, he’d gotten married and had three children. She tried to reach out to him on facebook when she found him there, but he’d blocked her.
She lays in bed and looks over at the glossy photo of a beautiful girl with dark hair and pale skin and such a complex mix of love and hope and fear in her eyes.
Remember that once upon a time, you were cherished, she thinks to herself as she turns off the lamp and closes her eyes to dream of the life she could have had.